UCL Preview: Bilbao holds slight advantage over Napoli, Arsenal can secure 17th consecutive group stage, more

IMAGE, UEFA.COM

By MATTHEW LEVINE
Staff Writer

The 1998/99 season was the last time Athletic Bilbao reached a Champions League group stage. Now, they hold an advantage with their away goal over Napoli.

If they can hold off a strong Napoli side, it won’t just be their first involvement in the group stages for 16 years, but for the second time in the clubs history. Iker Munian was able to tally for the Spanish side in the opening leg and could again play a crucial role in the Bilbao attack.

However, it will be the defense that will have the biggest challenge. Gonzalo Higuain continues to score goals against Bilbao as he did with the equalizer in the first leg. It was his ninth goal in 11 games against the Spanish club. The Bilbao backline may also have to deal with Michu and Dries Mertens.

Bilbao have a strong record on home soil in European competition losing only once, the last time to Liverpool in the 83/84 season. They will hope to continue their strong record at home. A strong showing should see them advance past the visiting Napoli.

What To Look For

1. Gunners looking for 17th consecutive group stage– Arsenal have never lost or conceded a goal against Turkish opponents. After struggling against Besiktas in Istanbul, the Gunners need to keep their trend going to advance to their 17th consecutive Champions League group stage.

For the Gunners it may be a case of who is missing. Mikel Arteta and Olivier Giroud are expected to miss out through injury and Aaron Ramsey is out after picking up a red card in the opening leg. However, the Gunners should have enough quality in their ranks to still find a way through.

Besiktas was able to frustrate Arsenal with high pressure and Demba Ba was dangerous throughout. If the Turkish side can get Ba similar opportunities at the Emirates and he is able to finish, Besiktas could put a shock to the Gunners.

2. More goals to come?– The opening half in the first leg between Bayer Leverkusen and FC Copenhagen saw the sides split five goals.

It provided the most entertaining of the opening play-off fixtures. With Copenhagen needing goals with Leverkusen having the lead and an advantage with away goals, the visitors will need to push men forward.

That could either lead to goals from the Danish side or leave them open for Leverkusen to take advantage of the spaces.

While it may not live up to the goal-scoring spree of the first leg, the second could be equally as entertaining.

3. Zenit look to remain perfect against Belgian opponents in Russia– Zenit already have an away goal to their advantage after a 1-0 win and if recent trends continue they should enter the group stages after the match in Russia.

The St. Petersburg club has yet to lose against Belgian opposition at home. Not only that, Standard Liege has yet to avoid defeat or even score a goal in the country.

Former Liege player Axel Witsel could return after his red card suspension is now over. If he enters the side, he will add a rugged and defensive cover for Zenit as they look to advance. The Russian club should be dangerous in the attack through DannyOleg Shatov and Hulk, if he is able to win his race for fitness.  

4. Celtic need to up level to advance– After being returned to the competition, Celtic did just enough to earn an away goal in the first leg. However, they spoiled several chances to put the play-off clash against Maribor away.

They will need to perform much better in front of goal if they want to advance. Anthony Stokes, in particular had several chances and will need to be much more clinical if he gets the start back in Scotland.

Maribor have yet to lose to Scottish opponents in the last five games. If they can extend that streak to six with a win or a draw with more goals than one apiece due to more away goals. If it’s 1-1 at Celtic Park, extra time and penalties may be needed.

5. Red Bull Salzburg one foot in group stage– After a 2-1 win in the opening leg, Salzburg takes a slight lead on their travels to Sweden.

The advantage is key with Malmo being a tough opponent in European fixtures at home. They have yet to lose in six consecutive matches, but will need to win by a goal to ensure survival in the competition. Emil Forsberg‘s late away goal could  be crucial.

Last year was the first time Salzburg faced Swedish opposition, defeating IF Elsborg in two Europa League group games last season. They will hope to repeat that this year and move to a perfect record against team’s from the Scandinavian country to advance to the Champions League proper. Jonatan Soriano already scored in the opening leg and will be a key player in the second leg.